'What if' game is a cheap trick

"Counterfactual conditional analysis" is a phrase used to describe an approach to the past in which the questions asked are not "what happened and why did it happen?" but rather "what might have happened and why did it not?" In other words, the "what if…" approach.

What if the Jews had not been expelled from Spain? What if Archduke Ferdinand had not been assassinated in 1914? Some years ago, I was asked to appear in a so-called "documentary" that asked "what if the Nazis had invaded the UK?" I declined, for the reason that no such Nazi invasion ever took place. I deal in plain facts (insofar as they may be verified), not idle speculation.

You get the picture. Counterfactual conditional analysis isn't history at all. It's make-believe - fascinating and popularly appealing no doubt, but without any claim to intellectual respectability.

I make these points by way of prologue to a consideration of the analysis that Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner offered us two weeks ago of some socio-economic problems in Israel. Her critique, If the prophets could see Israel now, was based on a heavily prejudiced analysis of what Isaiah, Amos and Hosea might have made of some features of modern Israel, namely social inequality, the treatment of refugees, and "the occupation".

He wasn't a hero. He was a publicity-seeking coward

But her essay amounted in my view to a cheap trick, since no one knows what these prophets might have said on any of these subjects. One might as well ask (for example) what the prophets Moses and Joshua might have made of "the occupation". Might they not have welcomed the re-liberation of Judea and Samaria and the incorporation of large parts of these into the Jewish state?

The treatment of African refugees is no doubt a sensitive issue. Would any of the prophets have sanctioned the unregulated settlement in the Jewish state of those (of whatever colour) who are not Jews? And what (I wonder) might any of the prophets have made of the suicide by self-immolation of Moshe Silman (and others)? Save in the most exceptional circumstances, suicide - in the words of the late Rabbi Louis Jacobs - "is considered to be a grave sin both because it is a denial that human life is a divine gift and because it constitutes a total defiance of God's will for the individual to live the life-span allotted to him". I might add that suicide is almost always an act of weakness - the craven and gutless alternative to facing up to one's responsibilities. Referring to his pathetic suicide note she writes of Silman as if he were some kind of hero. He wasn't. He was a publicity-seeking coward.

Laura Janner-Klausner represents the Reform tradition, whose original mission was to de-nationalise Judaism, removing as much as possible from it that might have been considered particularistic and emphasising instead Judaism's universal values.

This mission was conceived as a weapon in the struggle for civic and legal equality between Jews and Christians in western Europe and especially in Germany and Great Britain. The problem with this approach is that Judaism was never intended to be merely universalistic. To be sure, it has messages for everyone, but its ritualistic and territorial dimensions are meant for Jews alone.

In a powerful essay, Tisha b'Av and Jewish power, published in the journal of the South African Board of Deputies in 2010 the analyst Adam Levick pointed out that Israel is "a nation often forced to exercise power in order to prevent additional tragedies from befalling the Jewish people".

The re-establishment of the Jewish state has assuredly posed many dilemmas for the Jewish people, accustomed hitherto to being merely the passive objects of history rather than active participants. With the exercise of political independence and military authority have often come unwelcome choices. Of course Israel should strive to be "a light unto the nations". But not at the expense of its own national interests and not on a level that is so purely altruistic that it actually endangers the state itself.

As for the prophets, no one knows what they would have made of contemporary Israel. To seek to invoke them in the service of a Reformist ideology is unworthy, even of a rabbi.

Last updated: 12:45pm, August 13 2012